Thomas Kennedy Double Bass, London anno 1839 – Review

Classic Kennedy - how majestic and strong.

Yes indeed. When you look at the distinctive Gasparo Da Salo inspired model with its broad table proportions, flat back and full-depth ribs you know straight away that Thomas Kennedy (b-1784, d-1870) was a bass maker who really knew what he was doing.

What else is easily recognisable?

There are many very recognisable or “classic” characteristics to Kennedy's work - but perhaps one of the most unique and differentiating is his oval-shaped scroll. He has fabricated this by widening the outside volutes in an over-emphasised but harmonious manner towards the peg-box mortice before narrowing them back into the most distinctive of eyes. The whole creation being immaculately carved and a work of art in its own right.

What about the f-holes and table arch?

The Brescian influenced F's with their small upper and lower wings and subtle fluting are beautifully precise and flowing. Their straight poise and wide-balanced positioning on a table that possesses the most divine of arching also being so, so typical.

What about the elongated corners?

Yes, these are yet another typical feature of Kennedy instruments. It is thought that they were the result of a somewhat back-to-front method of construction whereby the rib corners were formed first and then the corner blocks fitted afterwards.

What about the short peg box and the splendid brass tuning machines?

Kennedy's consistent use of the short peg-box was an outcome of the fact that three string instruments were in use in England at the time. Also consistent throughout his career was his use of Rance tuning machines. On this double bass the three string theory is upheld by the fact that although all four cogs are of Rance manufacture the A-cog is of a slightly later design.

What about the varnish?

Kennedy used both oil and spirit varnishes. This example has a pleasing transparent chestnut-brown spirit varnish over an ochre ground.

What about Kennedy's choice of wood on the back, ribs and scroll of this bass?

The use of English sycamore for the back, ribs and scroll is typical of Kennedy’s output. Slightly more unusual is the way in which it has been converted from the log which seems to be somewhere between the quarter sawn and a through-and-through sawn method. Towards the edges of the back this has produced long-wide vertical grains while the central back shows a moderate rippled-flaming that descends very slightly across the central joint. The thinly worked ribs show wood of good matching attributes to that of the back. The two lower ribs have been constructed from the one piece. Although the scroll is plain, the back of the peg-box shows a light horizontal flame.

What about Kennedy's choice of wood for the front?

The front is a really splendid selection of spruce and again it is fairly typical of Kennedy's output. It features medium-fine grain lines that run remarkably straight and even and the upper and lower table displays a smattering of darker lines that run irregularly across the grain.

Do these darker lines have a name?

Good question. In the UK it is frequently called hazels or hazeling. In the USA it is frequently called bear-claws. In Italy it is frequently referred to as maschiatura while in Switzerland there are great many names to describe it including hail-wood tonewood, ageholz, aggeholz, wood glismets, wood hagelschlächtiges, wood katzentrittiges, wood maendler, mändliholz, männlerholz, weisstannenrindiges hail spruce, fir shingle, vogeltrittiges wood and indeed several more names.

In terms of the structure of wood - are these known technical or scientific terms?

No. These are just common terms most probably due to the lack of information and research published on the subject.

What is the closest technical term that you can find?

This German word "Haselfichte" is the closest word that we have been able to find. When translated it literally means hazel-spruce. It is a growth form that can be found in the Norway spruce (Picea abies) which grows in the Alps, the Bavarian Forest and the Bohemian Forest. The feature is believed to be caused by a genetic variation or defect in the growth cells of the tree that causes small indented longitudinal and crossed grooves just inside the bark of the tree. As the tree grows the surface of the wood is disturbed causing the annual rings to become narrowed and characterized by a small indent, wave or serration.

Does haselfichte improve the quality of an instrument's sound?

Although there is no scientific evidence to support this theory, the increased stiffness of the affected wood means that the top of an instrument can be made slightly thinner - which in turn could contribute to what some think is an improved sound. Wood containing haselfichte is definitely well sought-after by makers. Our thanks to Neal Heppleston a former student at The Newark School of Violin Making for his research on the subject.

I heard that Kennedy regularly fitted flanks to the fronts and backs of his instruments. Does this instrument have them?

There is a small flank to the lower bout of the front on the bass side. There is a small flank to the lower bout of the back on the treble side.

I once read that Kennedy signed his instruments on the inside front and back. Is this instrument signed?

The instrument is signed in pencil on the upper treble side front 'Tho Kennedy, Maker 364 Oxford Street, London 1839. The same inscription was also on the bass side back just above the central brace.

Regarding the inscription on the back I notice that you used the word “was” which is a past tense. Is the inscription still there?

Unfortunately no. For some inexplicable reason Kennedy left the back of this instrument seriously over thick and heavy. After a great deal of debate regarding a maker’s work v giving an instrument a chance to sound at its very best, we decided to regraduate the back. At the same time this allowed us to replace all the braces and stud work to the back. The good news is that we took a photographic record of the signature.

Did you take any other photographs?

Yes, we made a record of the work in his hand plus a record of some pretty atrocious past repair work.

Were there any repair labels on the inside of the instrument?

The instrument bore an old repair label that was positioned on the bass side of the central back brace. During the restoration the label was removed safely. It reads as follows; 'Repaired by Edward Withers, 24 Wardour Street, London W'.

From the address info on the label do you know in what year the repair would have taken place?

The book Edward Withers Ltd 230 Years of Violin Craft in Soho by Adam Whone published in 1996 by Mill Hill Productions (ISBN 0 9529264 0 7) records that in 1878 Edward (11) Newman Withers (b-1844, d-1915) moved his premises from 31 Coventry Street a short distance to 12 Princes Street. In 1879 - the very next year, the southern end of Wardour Street was extended to include Princes Street and the shop was renumbered 24 Wardour Street. Only two years later in 1881 he moved to the shop next door which was Nr 22 Wardour Street.

So the Kennedy was repaired by Edward (11) Withers between 1879 and 1881?


Besides the work to the back what other restoration work has been done to the bass.

The bass has undergone a complete rebuild. In brief it now boasts a new neck and fingerboard, a new bass bar, complete half edging to the front and a very large and time-consuming amount of stud work to the somewhat fragile ribs.

In investment terms how have Kennedy instruments performed over the years?

In Sotheby’s April 1985 London auction a bass-bar damaged instrument fetched £13 200-00. On the inside front cover of the November 2016 issue of the Strad magazine a large US shop was advertising a 1934 example for the sterling equivalent of £145,670. In April 1999 Instruments & Bows (our former trading name) sold this exact same instrument for £38,000. Over that 17.5-year period our boffins worked that out to be an increase in value of 283%.

Wow, that is phenomenal. Do you think that the prices of the top-quality instruments will continue to rise?

With the long-awaited sumptuously produced book “The English Double Bass” by co-authors Thomas Martin, Martin Lawrence and George Martin (Arpeggio Publications 2018 – ISBN 978-1-916-4053-0-1) now available, the undervalued relation of the violin family is surely poised to be much more appreciated and indeed appreciate further.

My most important question now. How does the Kennedy sound and feel?

The instrument possesses a truly exceptional deep dark sound that is sure to bring a huge smile to any players face. The feel of the neck and the feel of the bow as it draws the strings is sure to increase the size of that smile.

How about a summary?

Kennedy attained a level of excellence as a maker of double basses that very few other makers surpassed. His instruments are highly sought after by players because they know full well that they are some of the best sounding instruments in the world. What more does one need to say?

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